Alderman Antonio French already has one task on the agenda for his first day as the mayor of St. Louis: Fire the city's police chief, Sam Dotson.
"Chief Dotson has to go," says French. The enmity between the two men is nothing new. French won an aldermanic seat in 2009 representing the 21st Ward, and he and Dotson have clashed ever since over the relationship between the police department and hard-hit northern neighborhoods that play unwilling host to the majority of the city's violent crime.
Widening divisions in safety, crime and city resources pose a dire threat to all of St. Louis, French warns. And in a mayoral campaign likely to focus heavily on violent crime — last year's 188 homicides tied 2015's bloody record — French, 39, is hoping to position himself as a status-quo buster and problem solver. That means not only taking on Dotson, but hammering the sixteen-year reign of outgoing mayor Francis Slay.
"The situation we have in St. Louis is that the mayor accepts no responsibility for crime and violence," says French. "When it comes to crime in the city of St. Louis, the buck needs to stop with the mayor."
What would Mayor French do differently? For one thing, he says he would show up at crime scenes personally. In his 21st Ward, where murders and shootings are tragically commonplace, French says the presence of an elected official can help overcome the distrust between black residents and the officers assigned to serve them.
That's what St. Louis needs from a mayor, too, says French. "People need to understand that we have not had a mayor in sixteen years who has any relationship with the African American community, the largest population in St. Louis city. That is a problem."
Born and raised in the city's O'Fallon neighborhood, right there in the 21st ward, French attended the elite all-boys Christian Brother's College High School and later graduated from Auburn University with a degree in political science. After returning to St. Louis in 2000, French cut his teeth running political campaigns and publishing a short-lived alternative newspaper, the Public Defender, which eventually transitioned into a must-read blog for the city's political junkies.
In his two terms as alderman, French's star shone brightest on the streets of Ferguson. The police shooting of Michael Brown in August 2014 unleashed protests throughout the north county suburb, just a short drive down West Florissant Avenue from French's home. On Twitter, French attracted tens of thousands of followers with descriptions of protests and his own efforts to preserve the peace. Through French, a worldwide audience got a front-row understanding of the unfolding social unrest. The alderman's coverage regularly beat cable news shows to breaking developments on the ground.
Yet his most high-profile moment, perhaps inevitably, led to a backlash. In some circles, French's activism was followed by a persistent line of suspicion: What was a St. Louis aldermen doing running around north county? Shouldn't he be paying attention to his ward's problems, not burnishing his national reputation?
"What happened in Ferguson could have happened anywhere," French retorts. He points out that in the weeks following Michael Brown's death, several controversial police shootings drew protests in the St. Louis metro area.
"Too many people are content to make that just a Ferguson situation," French says. "This is a St. Louis situation. The question shouldn't be, 'Why was Antonio French out there?' The question should be, 'Why weren't you out there?'"
French believes the city's police department needs help. Employee vacancies should be filled, he says, and starting salaries should be increased to retain new officers before they bolt for departments in St. Louis County. But St. Louis also needs to mandate that its officers wear body cameras, he says, and its citizen review board (created through a French-backed board bill in 2015) should be able to do more than issue non-binding recommendations.
In French's view, St. Louis needs comprehensive plans that marshal citywide resources to confront citywide problems. That's much different than simply reassigning cops downtown or to the Central West End in the wake of an incident that grabs headlines. French notes his efforts to batter Slay over the city's lack of a big-picture plan, which included threatening to filibuster the Rams' stadium financing bill until the mayor addressed his concerns.
"You got to remember that it took us holding a billion-dollar project hostage before Slay even addressed the violent crime in our communities," French says.
The results of that effort, however, have been mixed. One year after Slay touted a "comprehensive plan" to flood fifteen St. Louis neighborhoods with focused police attention and civil resources, many key crime metrics are still up. Divisions are still deep. And development incentive packages and tax abatements continue to pour into already wealthy areas.
"This city has to stop putting the wants of the few over the needs of the many," French says. Under his watch, St. Louis would deny public funding for any new stadium proposals, and he would evaluate requests for stadium and infrastructure improvements from the Blues and Cardinals on a tight-fisted, case-by-case basis.
"Too many people in this city are leaving this city because of high rates of violence, high rates of crime, low-quality schools and a general feeling that the city does not care about their neighborhood," he says. "That is further justified when they turn on the news and still there are no more officers being assigned to their neighborhood, still there is not an economic development plan for that neighborhood, but somehow the city is going to find $80 million to help fund the dreams of some millionaires."
French has a steep challenge ahead if he wants to take the mayor's office from the likes of Alderwoman Lyda Krewson and Treasurer Tishaura Jones. While another campaign finance report is due next week, French's fundraising apparatus got off to a slow start, yielding just $13,000 from a crowd-funding campaign plus an additional $3,000 in more traditional donations.
The alderman has also weathered bad press over an early-January story in the St. Louis Business Journal: The story — which French considers a politically motivated hit-piece — reported that the IRS revoked the charitable status of North Campus Partnership, a nonprofit French founded in 2012 to provide tutoring and after-school services to underserved students in the 21st Ward. Though a registered nonprofit with the state of Missouri, French's organization failed to file the proper forms with the federal government for three consecutive years. (French now says North Campus is in the process of making good with the IRS.)
Regardless of its outcome, the election will represent a turning point in French's political career. Since his seat is up for election this year and he opted not to run for a third term in favor of the mayor's job, he has no backup plan in case of defeat. A loss in the mayoral election would mean French loses his place at the table of political power in St. Louis.
But French is weary of questions about his chances, and particularly tired of talking about whether he has a shot of winning in a field featuring four black candidates. He doesn't give credence to concerns that "splitting the black vote" will effectively hand the office to Krewson.
"I'm not saying that St. Louis must have an African-American mayor, but it's important for the next mayor of the city St. Louis to have a relationship with the African-American community," he says. "The Slay administration had a political mentality of doing just enough to win and not building any kind of collaboration. We need a policy shift. We are losing population and we are losing jobs. You have to look just beyond your own neighborhood and see that this city is not working for everyone, and we cannot continue down the same road."